Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz
Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz (Campaign publicity photo)

The elec­tion of a pro­gres­sive jus­tice to the Wis­con­sin State Supreme Court has bro­ken a Repub­li­can stran­gle­hold on the Bad­ger State, pos­si­bly set­ting up the over­turn­ing of an 1849 law ban­ning almost all abor­tions plus invit­ing a legal chal­lenge to the most ger­ry­man­dered state leg­isla­tive maps in the nation.

Mil­wau­kee Coun­ty Judge Janet Pro­tasiewicz defeat­ed right wing rival Dan Kel­ly, a for­mer jus­tice appoint­ed by Scott Walk­er, by a 170,000-vote mar­gin in an elec­tion that drew more than 1.7 mil­lion vot­ers and saw more than $45 mil­lion spent.

It was the most expen­sive judi­cial elec­tion in Amer­i­can history.

Kel­ly was a con­sul­tant to the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee and state Repub­li­can Par­ty dur­ing Don­ald Trump’s attempt to over­turn results of the 2020 elec­tion, in which Pres­i­dent Biden car­ried the Bad­ger State by a 20,000-vote margin.

The Wis­con­sin vic­to­ry by Pro­tasiewicz cre­ates a 4–3 pro­gres­sive major­i­ty on the court, which is offi­cial­ly non­par­ti­san but has been con­trolled by con­ser­v­a­tives since 2008. She will serve a ten-year term, last­ing through the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion as well as redis­trict­ing in the next decade.

The elec­tion saw a con­tin­u­a­tion of last year’s elec­tion trends, in which vot­ers across the coun­try reject­ed ultra MAGA Repub­li­can extrem­ists and embraced pro-choice can­di­dates. “Abor­tion cuts ice in Wis­con­sin,” emailed David Lawsky, a long­time Reuters polit­i­cal reporter now retired and liv­ing in near­by Chicago.

As well, the pro­gres­sive trend among under-thir­ty vot­ers was evi­dent, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Dane Coun­ty, home to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. “Abor­tion rights and vot­ing rights are too impor­tant for us to stand idly by, and young peo­ple will stop at noth­ing to pro­tect the future we believe in,” Cristi­na Tzintzun Ramirez, pres­i­dent of the nation­al group NextGen, said in a statement.

Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz
Por­trait of Jus­tice-elect Janet Pro­tasiewicz (Cam­paign pub­lic­i­ty photo)

Pro­tasiewicz would not say now she would vote in spe­cif­ic cas­es but made no secret of her values.

She described the Wis­con­sin Leg­is­la­ture as “rigged” and “unfair,” adding: “Wis­con­sin has prob­a­bly the most ger­ry­man­dered maps in the entire country.”

On abor­tion, she has been equal­ly blunt: “My per­son­al val­ue is that a woman has a right to choose.” With the Supreme Court’s vote to over­turn Roe v. Wade, there revived on the books an 1849 Wis­con­sin law ban­ning almost all abor­tions.” The law was enact­ed sev­en­ty years before Amer­i­can women won the right to vote.

Wis­con­sin is an even­ly divid­ed state: Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have car­ried the state in every elec­tion since 1988, except for Trump’s nar­row 2016 vic­to­ry. The state was home to ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry pro­gres­sive Sen­a­tor Robert LaFol­lette, but also to the 1950s red-baiter Sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy.

John F. Kennedy’s road to the White House began with his 1960 wins in New Hamp­shire and Wis­con­sin. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son announced in 1968 that he would not seek reelec­tion, know­ing he would like­ly lose the Wis­con­sin pri­ma­ry the fol­low­ing Tues­day to Viet­nam War crit­ic Sen­a­tor Eugene McCarthy.

As recent­ly as the end of the 2000s, Democ­rats had a tri­fec­ta in Wis­con­sin, with Gov­er­nor Jim Doyle and Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­isla­tive majori­ties in both chambers.

Yet, fol­low­ing the elec­tion of mil­i­tant Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er (Doyle’s suc­ces­sor) in the 2010 midterms, the state began shift­ing sharply to the right.

Walk­er and Repub­li­cans in the Leg­is­la­ture gut­ted the pow­er of pub­lic employ­ee unions. The state enact­ed a fire-at-will law. Bal­lot drop box­es were banned.

The Wis­con­sin Supreme Court lat­er took up a Trump motion to dis­qual­i­fy 200,000 votes from Mil­wau­kee and Dane Coun­ties, both of which Joe Biden won big.

In the words of Jef­frey Man­dell of Law For­ward, a pro­gres­sive legal group: ““Pret­ty much every­thing in Wis­con­sin flows from the gerrymandering.”

Democ­rats cap­tured more than fifty-three per­cent of the vote for leg­isla­tive can­di­dates in one recent elec­tion, only to see Repub­li­cans hold more than six­ty per­cent of seats. Vot­er analy­sis has shown the Repub­li­cans could hold the Wis­con­sin Leg­is­la­ture with as lit­tle as forty-four per­cent of the vote.

Six of eight U.S. House mem­bers from Wis­con­sin are Republicans.

A legal chal­lenge to the ger­ry­man­der is expect­ed to be filed on August 1st, the date when Jus­tice-elect Pro­tasiewicz takes office.

Abor­tion was the top­ic of about thir­ty per­cent of the winner’s tele­vi­sion ads, heav­i­ly under­writ­ten by the Wis­con­sin Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The mes­sage from one spot: “Judge Pro­tasiewicz believes in women’s free­dom to make their own deci­sions when it comes to abortion.”

The ultra MAGA move­ment has clear­ly played a role in loos­en­ing Repub­li­can dom­i­nance. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Tony Evers unseat­ed Walk­er in 2018 and won reelec­tion last year. But the Repub­li­can-run leg­is­la­ture stripped the gov­er­nor and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Josh Kaul of many of their powers.

Kaul is work­ing on a chal­lenge to the 1849 abor­tion law.

The Repub­li­cans’ dom­i­nance was built on the so called “WOW” sub­ur­ban coun­ties around Mil­wau­kee — Wauke­sha, Ozau­kee, and Washington.

Repub­li­can Mitt Rom­ney car­ried them by a near­ly two-to-one mar­gin in 2012. They were still going for Kel­ly last night, but by a much nar­row­er margin.

Ex-Jus­tice Kel­ly was not gra­cious in defeat.

He told sup­port­ers on elec­tion night: “I wish that I’d been able to con­cede to a wor­thy oppo­nent, but I do not have a wor­thy oppo­nent.” Dur­ing the cam­paign, he decried “the ran­cid slan­ders that were launched against me.”

Three pro­gres­sive Supreme Court jus­tices showed up to cel­e­brate at Protasiewicz’s vic­to­ry par­ty. “Today’s results mean two very impor­tant and spe­cial things,” she told the crowd. “First, it means that Wis­con­sin vot­ers have made their voic­es heard. They have cho­sen to reject par­ti­san extrem­ism in this state. And sec­ond, it means our democ­ra­cy will always prevail.”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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